Home Sweet Home

I’ve been in the Gambia nearly a month now, and haven’t yet said anything about where I’m now living. The initial stay in Safari Garden Hotel (which I thoroughly recommend if you’re intending a visit!) allowed us to acclimatise gently, but after five days of pampering, those of us who are based locally were moved to our permanent homes. In my case this means Bakau, which forms part of the sprawling conurbation known as the Kombos just south of the capital Banjul. It’s a tourist area here, which means we have a small supermarket stocking a range of goods (Cornflakes, Typhoo Tea, Robinson’s Fruit Squash, Cheddar cheese) which you don’t normally find in the “bitiko” (corner shop), and you’re more likely to pick up a pineapple or something more exotic in our local market than in the big market at Serrekunda although of course the fruit here like everything else, is also rather more expensive. Bakau is a coastal development and I’m only about ten minutes walk from the beach where, in an afternoon it’s a hive of activity as the fishing boats arrive back with their day’s catch and gangs of young men wade out to meet them, waist high in the waves and carrying one or more plastic fish crates to fill with the shining harvest. The crates look heavy and some of the boys carry two at a time on their head and jog back to the beach and onto the quayside as if they were empty. Here the fish is tipped out into different boxes according to type, and packed in ice before being taken away or stored in one of the multitude of rusty chest freezers which litter the fish quay – the freezers are no longer working but act as insulated storage to keep their contents fresh until the following day. This is the best place to buy fish, straight off the boat, but there is also a good vantage point on the terrace of the guest house above where you can sit with a cooling drink and watch the milling throng.

Across the road from the sea lies Bakau market – a crowded jumble of small stalls where you can buy not only fruit and vegetables but also meat and fish (if you’re not bothered by the crowds of flies !), clothes, plastic bowls and bottles, mobile phones, spices and herbs, and of course crafts for the tourist – paintings and wooden carvings, drums, beads, bracelets and batik prints. Threading your way through the market – the alleyways are hardly wide enough for two people to pass without touching – you emerge at the back into a small sandy lane lined by yet more traders which in turn leads onto a maze of dusty streets where you will find my new home, just near the crocodile pool (but more of that another day).






I’m living in a small rendered bungalow within a compound but it’s probably not the sort of compound you imagine when you think of a British ex-pat. Everybody lives in a compound but there are no carefully manicured lawns here – in our case we are surrounded by a neat 6′ concrete block wall and steel doors although some of our less well off neighbours have corrugated iron sheets as fencing. I saw one of the guide books describe our area as a “shanty town” which I think is unfair, but certainly my own lodgings are a cut above the housing of many of the local residents – and considerably less crowded. I share two thirds of the bungalow with Munya, a young volunteer from Zimbabwe who is also working at the Department of Agriculture, and the remaining third (a self contained unit) was empty until this weekend when a new couple moved in. Alongside us is another similar bungalow occupied by a couple of young Dutch volunteers, with the smaller part of their bungalow as yet unoccupied. We have piped water (cold only), a shower, western-style flush toilet, and a small kitchen with fridge and 2 burner gas hob. By local standards this is quite luxurious and so far the only downside I’ve found is the irregularity of the electricity supply – often it seems to be off just when we need it, but I’ve quickly learned to keep a torch handy after dark (even/especially in the shower!), and to plug my laptop and phone in to charge whenever possible as you’re never sure when you’ll lose power. Similarly the water supply fails from time to time so we keep a couple of jerry cans for storage, and a bucket and dipper in the shower just in case it stops when you have soaped up! Outside is a small patio with seating area and an outside tap visited occasionally by some of the neighbours (presumably when theirs is off or there is a queue at the communal standpipe.)

From the yard door leads a smart passageway with a string of lights in the walls to another wrought iron gate opening onto Mamakoto Road and the outside world. (Normally the streets are very busy, but it looks a lot quieter in the photos simply because it was Friday and most of the population were at the mosque.)

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Language Practice…..and a Feast

The main part of our schooling during the last week has been language lessons. Three of our group who will be working further out from the Kombos are learning Mandinka which is more useful “up country”, and the rest of us, myself included, are learning Wolof which is the predominant language in the urban area. Modu, our tutor (I’ll spell it as it is pronounced, rather than try to write in Wolof) is teaching us about the local culture and customs and trying to give us a grounding in basic phrases for greetings, getting around, shopping, and everyday life.

The Gambians are a very sociable people to whom greetings are very important so it is only good manners when meeting to exchange several phrases of greeting, and to ask how they are, and how the family is, even if we have not met them before. So we begin each conversation with the ritual phrases “nanga def” (How are you?) to which the reply is “mang fi” (I’m fine) even if you are not fine, followed by “ana waa kur ga” (How’s the family?), to which the reply is “ñun fa” (They’re fine), and probably other queries about “How’s your day going?”, “How is work/business?” and various other good wishes including the catch all “salaam aleekum” (response “maleekum salaam”) or “jamarek”, wishing each other peace and goodwill, before we begin to think about the business of the conversation for example “Please may I have two bread rolls?”.

This morning, for a practical lesson we were taken to Serekunda where there is a huge market selling fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, fabrics etc, and there let loose to practice our Wolof skills on the stallholders by enquiring about prices, what some of the items were (there are plenty of foodstuffs I have never seen, or can’t name) and to buy the ingredients for our lunch. I was delighted to be asked by one lady “deega nga olof?” (Do you speak Wolof?) in response to my stumbling enquiry about the price of tomatoes, but had to reply truthfully “tutti, tutti” (A very little). Still at least she understood and I bought 5 tomatoes for 10p!

Following our shopping experience we went back to Kanifing to the compound of Awr (Eve) another of our language trainers to help make a “benacin” (One pot) using the meat and vegetables we had bought earlier. The ladies of the compound were very patient with our efforts, instructing some of us how they wanted the vegetables prepared (large pieces mostly it seems) while others of our group helped with the preparation of “juusi buy” (baobab juice) which involves soaking pieces of the baobab fruit in water, then sieving it and adding large quantities of sugar, condensed milk, vanilla essence, banana, (or other fruit) and results in a delicious sweet creamy fluid like liquid silk. You will think the taste can’t be improved until you discover wonjo juice which looks like blackcurrant and is produced by boiling a dried red (sorrell?) flower in a pan of water with a little mint. I missed the rest of the process as I was peeling onions, so there may be other ingredients too, but when this is filtered and added to the baobab juice the resulting mixture is like nectar of the Gods

Soaking baobab for the juice

Soaking baobab for the juice

Juusi buy nearly ready

Juusi buy nearly ready

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Cookhouse duty for the boys

Ready for the pot

Ready for the pot

Meanwhile the meat was fried in oil, and added to what can only be described as a cast aluminium cauldron over a wood fire together with a large quantity of stock with tomato paste and various spices, herbs and flavourings and bucket loads of vegetables, and left to bubble away while we chatted and drank glasses of “attaya” a sweet frothy tea, and the remains of the bowl of “juusi buy”. Maybe 90 minutes later after some of the vegetables had been removed to prevent overcooking, a huge bowl of rice was put to steam over the cauldron, and then later still mixed in with the stew and covered to soak up the juice. The result when dinner was served, fed about 30 people very well, tasted delicious, and if our budget was anything like correct had cost less than £1 per head.

Traditionally Gambians eat together from a large communal bowl using their right hand to pick out pieces of meat or vegetables and to knead small balls of rice and dip it in the juices, but as “toubabs” and honoured guests we were provided with plastic garden chairs and spoons which made eating a little easier. So “jerejef” and “jamarek” to Awr and her extended family for a great meal and good company and for introducing me to some unknown vegetables.

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Lots of stirring…..

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…..and pounding

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…..till the boys return from school….

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……and we can sit down with Awr to enjoy the feast